One of the best things I’ve ever done is live in cooperative housing. Three out of my four college years were spent sharing a house, and chores, with 60-150 other people. It was messy, loud, challenging, unifying—and utterly thrilling. Here’s some of what I learned as a result:
1. In some ways, having heaps of roommates is easier than having a few.
For one thing, it’s easier to be anonymous. This cuts both ways. People don’t have to participate when they’re easily lost in the crowd. But if you can escape the person who drives you crazy, and if you share a kitchen with so many people you can’t blame just one for its unacceptable state, you avoid a lot of interpersonal drama. At least, I did. Until I shared a room with someone who drove me crazy, and for whom I could blame its unacceptable state.
Part of living cooperatively is that everyone buys into the system; everyone shares responsibility in making sure the house stays standing. Whether it’s breaking windows, trashing common space, causing a noise complaint, or violating the terms of the whole house’s lease, it quickly becomes clear that just one member can make life a lot harder for everyone else. That’s a kind of power I hadn’t considered before living in the co-ops.
I’m not sure what else to say about this. If one of my siblings said, hey, I’m thinking about jumping my housemate, I’d play the practical older sister and say, no effing way, buster, now put down that beer and meet my nice friend. But in reality, totally messing up your love life is ridiculously fun for a while. Emphasis on ridiculous.
4. “The Man” isn’t always out to get you.
I worked at the highest levels of the co-op, and helped make decisions that affected student members immediately, and the whole organization in the long term. Although different stakeholders often had completely opposing agendas, most people believed their perspective and solution were in the best interest of the co-op as a whole. Often, decisions were handed down that seemed like power plays, or sneak attacks, or any number of descriptions that meant the central organization was out to get the average cooper. But running an institution—making sure it survives while also sticking to its core values—can require devastating compromise. As an administrator, not only can you not make everyone happy all the time, you often can’t make anyone happy even some of the time. As a citizen, you have to choose your leaders well, demand more than they can give, and then understand that they won’t always be able to deliver.
5. Friendships can make or break how you feel about life.
I’m not sure I would have stayed in college if I hadn’t felt so great about living with a bunch of quirky, political, interesting people. The friendships I made, that formed from sharing a strange and intense living experience, carried me through depression, heartbreak, writing a thesis, and lots of other stuff I have the privilege of forgetting thanks to the fact that they didn’t kill me. Friends can make everything else, whatever it is, seem okay.